Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Mountain Zebra National Park

Rhodes, Eastern Cape

When we left Rhodes, a tiny, beautiful, green and damp village tucked at the feet of the looming  Drakensberg mountain range, or the Berg, as it is known locally, we were not sure where we were headed, other than south, towards the coast. We were contemplating the Wild Coast, but Vince really wanted to see elephant, so Addo seemed a natural choice. We had looked at the map, seen the small patch of green outside the farming town of Cradock (which forever and chillingly meant The Cradock Four to me) that said Mountain Zebra National Park, and thought it might be a good overnight point, probably not much to see, but a SAN park, so well run - judging by all our previous experience: clean, safe and with a town nearby for Internet, where we could research availability at the popular Addo.

 Gladiolus in Rhodes

The drive out of Rhodes was beautiful, with mountains crashing like green waves into the valley through which the damp dirt road wound.
Asclepias fruticosa (see comments)

 The ploughed fields were like black chocolate frosting.

At Aliwal North, last encountered on our way up to the Eastern Free State - we'd now come full circle, with Lesotho in the middle - we stopped, yet again, to stock up on boerewors and lamb chops. Remember them for later. And we hit the Friendly N6 Route, an artery from the interior to the coast. It was in very good shape, and incomparably better than the Maloti Route and its potholes. This was our experience all through the Eastern Cape - local government seems to be paying attention to infrastructure. The same cannot be said for the Free State, thinking of the Maloti Route and bombed-out Ladybrand. If anyone knows more, I'm curious.

It was wonderful driving through this country.


We were heading for Queenstown, where we would turn off to the west on the smaller R61 to Cradock, and I was wondering where my cousin Kate and her husband farmed.  If we had planned better we could have visited.

Below, outside Queenstown, Mandela Houses. I can find little background about them on the Web. Still known locally as Mandela Houses, I believe only about 40,000 were built during Nelson Mandela's term in office, rather than the 1 million that were promised to those who had no brick and mortar homes to live in. But the name persists, and the houses are often painted in many different colours: the box shape and pinks, blues and yellows. I'm also curious whether the colours have any connection to the rainbow nation construct attributed to then Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Around Queenstown, roadside sellers were hawking prickly pears (cactus pears) by the bucketful. They were all young men. Stationed at intervals of 30 yards or less, prickly pear seller after prickly seller. How do you pick a prickly pear seller? This was like the Free State near the Lesotho border where lady after lady was selling peaches - white plastic bucketsful of identical yellow peaches. How do you pick a lady? It was only in Lesotho that we saw the trees, one or two per homestead, growing near a rondawel,  branches thick with fruit. The ladies must have walked across the border to South Africa to set up shop. 

And then we were in Cradock, a town dominated in the middle by Cape Dutch buildings startlingly white and by a Dutch Reformed church modeled after St Martins-in-the-Field, of all places. We found an Internet cafe in a computer shop off the main drag, and established that Addo, near the coast, had some camping spaces available. So on we went to the Mountain Zebra Park, just a couple of miles outside town, to put up our tent for the night.

The road leading into the park was dead straight and led into low, green hills. 

We saw our first bokkie, in this case a Springbok. 

In the campsite, which was quite full of caravans and tents, with a central area closed off so the grass could grow back, we chose our camp stand, with neighbours to one side and a wide hiking path leading into the bush on the other.  The campers on the other side of the path were our neighbours from the Karoo National Park, with the huge silver awning pulled over their trailer which flipped inside out to reveal a state of the art camp kitchen.

We unpacked the tent and set it up to stake our claim, and then hurried to do a circular drive on the plateau on top of the hills off before sunset.

I had no way of knowing, then, that the short, steep ascent to the plateau, and that wide, endless vista over country that cried Africa, would return to me in dreams in New York, again and again.

Red Hartebeest

The sky was filled with so many layers of light and cloud that the perspective of the plain and hills beyond was reverse-telescoped to the extent that you felt that there was no other place, anywhere in the world.

We came down the steep road again, towards camp, surprising two enormous kudu in a gully.We felt a little different, coming down. Thoughtful.

It had started to rain. Back at camp we opened the back of the 4 x 4 and set out the tailgate, making a work station protected a little from the wet under the raised hatch. The fire was ready, and had been moved (it was on wheels) under the awning that Vince had stretched from the tent on poles, making a stoep for us, and every now and then the coals hissed as water blew in sideways. 

I put the chops and the wors on the coals, and turned away when I heard a sudden cacophany of jackals yipping and yeehawing close by. I stood for maybe twenty seconds, listening to them, just at the perimeter of the camp, which was just a row of stones, fifteen feet from our tent. Then I turned back to the fire.

Hm. The coil of boerewors was suddenly noticeably shorter. I counted the chops. I swore I had put six on the fire. Now there were five.

The jackals were silent.

We drank some more red wine. And sat in our camp chairs, eating, glancing up every now and then to the dark world beyond the ring of firelight.We debated whether there had in fact been five or six chops in the pack from Aliwal North. But there was no reasoning away the short sausage.

Of course I was channeling my mother who has seen a jackal nip some chops from the fire in front of her her, hundreds of miles away, in Nossob, in the Kgalagadi.

We slept very well that night. We were surrounded by hills and grasses and neighbours who had come from all over the country to camp and braai and drink coffee early in the morning before going on their own circular drive. Rain pattered onto the canvas. Something green and rainfilled crept into my bones and took up residence there, invisibly, and only made its presence felt many months, and many thousands of miles away.

Tomorrow: the camp by day. Flowers. And the best tomato bredie, ever.

What came before:

Day 1 - Tortoises- a sad story
Day 2 - Karoo National Park - a thief in the night
Day 2 - Traffic Cops in Beaufort West - how the law won
Day 2 - Coffee and a Rusk
Day 3 - Karoo National Park to Nieu Bethesda
Day 4 - Doornberg, the farm of our dreams
Day 4 - Nieu Bethesda
Day 4 - Sneeuberg deli and Two goats brewery
Day 4 - Flowers on Doornberg
Day 5 - The R26 to Golden Gate - the worst road in the country?
Day 6 - Maliba Lodge, Ts'ehlanyane National Park, Lesotho
Day 6,7 and 8 - Golden Gate and Glen Reenen Rest Camp
Day 9 - Sani Pass
Day 6, 7, 8 - Flowers of the Free State
Day 10 - Driving to Rhodes


  1. Marie, Thank you for making me travel again...

  2. Die "possibly kakibos" lyk baie soos melkbos/milkweed/Asclepias fruticosa vir my.

    Ek het min ervaring van die Oos-Kaap. Ongelukkig. Dit is baie mooi.

  3. Phew - beautiful vistas. Inspiring! We do have vague plans to go to Rhodes in dec, so your post is well timed. Cape Town is beautiful, but I feel subject to some kind of weird gravitional pull here at the southern tip of the Africa. It's like toffee: going away requires overcoming serious resistance!

  4. Oooh. Nice skies. Me being a plant name know-it-all again - your "possibly khakibos" is Asclepias fruticosa, indigenous, but a widespread toxic weed in SA.

  5. It does look like a milkweed pod.

    Beautiful skies. My favorite.

    By the way, what's up with the 'friendly' route? Why is it called that, suggestively?

  6. Anyes, you were a trouble-free passenger :-)

    jvdh and Donovan - thank you. Clearly it's a long time since I saw khakibos, if ever! I should have been brave and opened a book. And it is very milkweedy...

    Marijks - oh, you must go. We only spent the night, after our hair raising drive, which was silly, but it is very beautiful in a foreign way, for me, not knowing the Drakensberg.

    Haha, Frank, I never thought about it that way. I think they're just trying to personalize less known routes to encourage tourism, but no one got touchy feely...

  7. I love reading about your journey.
    It puts a different perspective on travelling. Eastern Cape - that's where I was born and I want to go back again.

  8. Hen - feel like camping with me???

  9. beautiful photos! i am so glad i came over today--feelings of wanderlust even stronger now damnit. thanks for the itin!

  10. The howling jackals distracted you while they sent one stealthy jackal in to steal away the meat.


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